On the spine of a mountain deep in Japan’s Northern Alps it’s tough to tell who has the best seats. Schoolchildren in tracksuits and safety helmets have parked themselves on a cluster of wooden benches; others along the precipitous edge have been claimed by middle-aged hikers and families. They’ve come from all over the archipelago to take in this view of clouds and blue-grey peaks about 3,000 metres above sea level. Sitting here atop the Tateyama range is their reward for winding up the crowded rocky path.
Today is a rare dry morning, a break from an unseasonably wet summer. For some who sit here catching their breath, the ultimate prize awaits: a chance to be blessed by a shinto priest. Groups of 20 at a time pay the ¥500 (€3.50) entry fee and ascend the steps to the shrine, which is perched on a rocky knob at the highest point of the range. The young priest is tanned and has neatly trimmed eyebrows. He may lack gravitas but at least he’s dressed the part. Wearing an orange robe and a blue skirt-like hakama, he squeezes himself into the small wooden structure, chants, waves a purifying staff and then pours saké into a shallow lacquered cup for every person in attendance. There’s no time to linger for a photo: the next group has begun to form a queue and the priest is getting impatient.
This is mountaineering Japanese-style: you don’t just come for the fresh air and a chance to stretch your legs. It’s also a pilgrimage to a shrine that sells overpriced souvenirs and snacks – and lets you use the toilet out back. Want to announce your arrival on social media? No problem: high-speed 4G works just fine up here. It may not be everyone’s idea of communing with nature and probably wasn’t what the government had in mind when it made Mountain Day its newest national holiday in 2016. But most people in Japan will recall school trips to peaks this high – and crowded – and won’t think to question the routine.
In Japan – where most of the land is mountainous – Buddhist monks were scaling the tallest peaks as early as the 8th century. They preached reverence for the mountains, built temples and left carved-rock statues and miniature shrines and temples scattered along the trails. After the monks came the ascetics and diviners and shinto priests, all with similar goals. It’s holy ground but whose religion? Not many people obsess over the details.
The thought of spiritual forces flowing through the rocks, trees and streams up here makes Akira Suzuki giddy. “It’s my first time here,” he says. “We’re climbing one of Japan’s sacred mountains.” A spry 63-year-old saké-brewer from Mito, northeast of Tokyo, Suzuki is here with friends who used to do this sort of thing a lot during their university days. Much of the equipment that Suzuki has brought with him predates Gore-Tex: his Galibier helmet, canvas backpack and leather climbing gloves are from the 1970s. It will do for this trail; his day ends on a distant mountaintop at a cottage with such comforts as hot meals and a hot-spring bath. “We are too old to sleep in tents.”
The concept of walking up mountains for fun is a relatively recent development. English missionary Walter Weston visited Japan in the late 19th century and is widely credited with popularising the pursuit. In 1964, Kyuya Fukada, an unsuccessful novelist, wrote a book that unwittingly gave the great hiking hordes something more to aspire to. In Nihon Hyakumeizan he described the beauty and distinctiveness of his favourite 100 peaks of 1,500 metres or higher; soon Japan’s were on the up too.
But it would take longer for mountaineering in Japan to shed its reputation as a miserable way to spend your free time. “We used to talk about the three Ks: kitsui [hard], kitanai [dirty] and kiken [dangerous],” says Kenji Kubota, director of the Tokyo-based think-tank Yamakei Research Institute. A former reporter for Yama-to-Keikoku (Mountains and Gorges) – which was founded in 1930 and is Japan’s oldest existing alpinist magazine – Kubota is now in his late fifties. He belongs to a generation that regarded mountaineering as a discipline with mentors and protégés and accepted protocols: greet everyone you pass, yield to hikers going uphill, etc.
The rise of the yamagaaru (mountain girl) changed everything. Beginning in 2009 young Japanese women who had never cared much for roughing it were turning up in unlikely locations – and in carefully considered outfits.
Wearing leg-warmers and mini-skirts hiked over striped tights that matched the colour of their bright water- repellent jackets, hats and rucksacks, the mountain girls came along just as a niche corner of Japan’s fashion industry was taking off.
Sportswear company Goldwin, which owns the trademark rights for The North Face in Japan and South Korea, had just opened The North Face Standard shop in Tokyo’s Harajuku district. It was in a separate building from the brand’s main shop and sold trench coats and parkas lined with Gore-Tex, and Oxford shirts and travel suits featuring quick-drying textiles. There were collaborations with Comme des Garçons and Nanamica, and marketing campaigns targeting city dwellers; rather than the rock-climbers, long-distance trekkers and skiers who had been the brand’s core users. Soon others were entering the fray, from camping-equipment maker Snow Peak’s fashion line to the all-weather jackets, boots and trousers of And Wander, a brand that was started in 2011 by two former Issey Miyake designers. Over the past five years this sector has grown by 25 per cent to ¥205bn (€1.6bn). The mountain girls, meanwhile, even had their own magazines – Oz, Of Girl and Randonnée – that offered tips on what to wear for each season and where to buy it.
“A lot of people who love fashion also go camping so there’s a lot of mixing of the two genres,” says Ryo Takanashi, second in command of The North Face in Japan. Takanashi could be talking about himself: in his previous job he was a buyer for Tokyo fashion retailer Freak’s Store but also a surfer and camping enthusiast.
“From what I have seen in other countries the line between fashion and outdoor brands is clearer. In Japan people who are out trekking aren’t just wearing the traditional mountaineering brands. There’s a whole sector of the fashion business that’s targeting them.”
It’s not difficult to spot this breed of outdoor enthusiast on the jagged peaks of Tateyama. During the climbing season, from mid April to late November, they carry pink-and-blue Chums backpacks to match their rainproof outerwear and stretchy trekking trousers, and wear sunglasses from artisanal workshops in Japan’s eyewear capital of Sabae – and somehow, against all the odds, they manage to keep their gear clean. On the ridge trail we encounter three women from the western island of Kyushu, each of whom appears as a solid band of colour from afar: one pink, one blue, one green. “We all picked items in our favourite colours,” says Kayo Fukushima, who is dressed hat to boots entirely in pink.
Around these mountains an army of seasonal workers and residents keep everything running smoothly. They repair trails; look after the cottages and campsites; pilot helicopters and airlift supplies to high-altitude rest stops; and alert hikers to noxious gas levels from the nearby hot-spring marsh. When the helicopters are grounded by bad weather, someone swift-footed and strong – a hakobiya – volunteers to go up and down the mountain shouldering heavy loads. They make sure that this mountain ridge in central Japan is an idyllic alpine playground that’s safe enough for dashing ramblers.